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by Bill Gibron

19 Jul 2009


We critics are often accused of celebrating the theatrical experience to the detriment of those who can only afford (or socially tolerate) the home video version of same. There’s no real difference, they argue, and point to DVD and its newest format cousin Blu-ray as a means of making their commercial point. With clarity and crispness of image no longer an issue and the lack of etiquette challenged audience members to contend with, the living room beats the Cineplex every time - or does it?

Henry Selick’s Coraline is a perfect example of this entertainment dichotomy. On the one hand, the new Blu-ray from Universal is so special, so jam-packed with added content goodness, that it’s not hard to see why some would wait a few months to experience the film in such an expansive, insightful manner. On the other hand, no amount of technological tweaking can recreate the stunning Real 3D image offered when the movie opened last March. The two color process offered as part of the two disc collector’s edition, while acceptable, drains some of the magic from the movie.

And Coraline is all about magic. The wistful nostalgic effect of stop motion animation is indeed potent. The moment a member of an earlier generation sees the static, superlative work of such single frame artistry, visions of Ray Harryhausen, George Pal and his Puppetoons, and the dream factory forged by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass instantly come to mind. It’s all Mad Monster Parties and the adventures of Tubby the Tuba. As the format flourished during the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, the love for all things Clokey (Gumby), O’Brien (King Kong), and Danforth (When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth) grew. In the ‘80s, Will Vinton carried the magic mantle, while the ‘90s saw Nick Park and his Wallace and Gromit gain international approval.

Yet somewhat lost among the mythic mix is aforementioned genius Henry Selick. Sidelined by his association with Tim Burton, a lame live action misstep (Monkeybone), and an under-appreciated if terrific take on Roald Dahl (James and the Giant Peach), he’s now back - and he’s brought English icon Neil Gaiman along for the ride. Together, they tap into areas heretofore unheard of for a family film, bringing both the singular and the sinister to the mix. The result is a quirky dark fantasy which while grounded in a kind of every kid reality, transcends the mundane to become something quite special indeed. 

When her family moves to rainy, gloomy Oregon, Coraline Jones finds herself lost in a new and wholly unfamiliar apartment house. Her upstairs neighbor is an eccentric Eastern European named Mr. Bobinsky. He once ran a famous mouse circus. Now, he seems insane. Downstairs live the equally odd actresses Miss Spink and Miss Forcible. The former burlesque style glamour queens are obsessed with their slobbering terriers and their inflated figures. And then there’s Wybie, the grandson of the woman who owns the building. He’s a jabbering pain in Coraline’s already sour demeanor. 

One day, our heroine discovers a door to another dimension, a place where her gardening book author parents are attentive and thoughtful, where Mr. Bobinsky is a regal ringmaster, and the team of Spink and Forcible offer their own naughty nightly floorshow. But something is not quite right with this fanciful place. All the people have big black buttons sewn into their faces - in place of their eyes - and in order to stay, Coraline must agree to do the same. Little does she know that dark forces are plotting to keep her prisoner in the other realm forever!

In a genre packed with derivative visuals and too hip for homeroom pop culture jibes, Coraline is a welcome return to pure animation splendor. It’s gorgeous to look at, inspiring to experience, and satisfying in ways few modern motion pictures - no matter the proposed demographic - ever strive to achieve. In the hands of Selick, we witness the kind of imagination and invention that only Pixar can provide - and with none of that newfangled technological twaddle to get in the way. This is untainted artistry, plain and simple, skill sets unseen in today’s joke a minute cinema-nipulation.

Granted, Selick does take liberties with Gaiman’s prize winning novella, reconfiguring the setting to a dreary Pacific Northeast and expanding on characters barely considered in the book. As a result, Coraline feels like that motion picture rarity - a true collaboration between author and interpreter. Make no mistake, this director still admires and abides by the tome’s “horror’ overtones, never lightening up the material to make it more mainstream. Instead, Coraline is a film you have to fall into fully, an outrageous statement of childhood fear fashioned out of wish fulfillment, candy floss, and a whole lot of sharp, pointy things.

Selick excels within this brooding big picture, and he certainly brings the spectacle here (enhanced, naturally, by the application of excellent 3D effects). He pays homage to Pal and the Puppetoons with an amazing mouse marching band that has to be seen to be believed. The level of precision and overall scope is jaw dropping. Similarly, Madams Spink and Forcible give a floorshow that will sail right over the heads of prepubescent audiences, but definitely satisfy a depressed drag along dad or two. Selick sets much of the film outside the perplexing pink apartment house, utilizing the surreal garden set-up and the surrounding forest to find new avenues of expression. And there’s no denying the man’s eye for set and character design. The figurines employed here and the backgrounds they exist in are fully realized and ridiculously alive.

Of course, character is very important to this film’s success, and Coraline doesn’t skimp on personality. Thanks the wonderful work by the voice actors (Dakota Fanning, Terri Hatcher, Ian McShane, Dawn French, and Jennifer Saunders all acquit themselves more than admirably here) and the way in which these entities are employed, we experience untold amounts of depth. Some might see this film as too edgy or cold, calculated without adding the necessary nuances of emotion or identification.

Frankly, it’s a foolhardy argument. Coraline is involving, entrancing, heartfelt…and in the end, rather hopeful. We want this young girl to be happy, and fear she will take up with the Other World residents because they promise things that are superficial and instantly gratifying. If there’s a singular theme here, it’s the tagline currently being used for the film’s promotion - “be careful what you wish for”. Such unearned satisfaction can only lead to pain and disappointment.

Present for almost every bit of added content here, Selick explains the journey of Coraline from page to screen in such a compelling fashion that we forgive the occasional directorial foolishness of the people making the bonus features (quick jump cuts, random editing jumbles). His commentary clarifies facets about Coraline’s home life, while the deleted scenes show that not every inch of stop-motion footage makes it into the film. The voice actors get their say, as does Gaiman, who is very proud of the results.

Technically, the movie looks amazing, the Blu-ray capturing the level of detail Selick strived for flawlessly. But we are still along way off from viewing the film in the perfected 3D of the theatrical experience. The two color concept does work, but drains a lot of the color out of the image in the process. Other elements like U-Control and BD Live! add even more to the overall experience. 

In combination with the qualities Selick typically brings to the party - passion for stop motion, an attention to detail, a true love of the overall artform - Coraline can’t help but be charming. It’s like a trip back in time, to the moment when you first realized that a giant ape could actually climb to the top of the Empire State Building, or a creature from Greek mythology could ‘come alive’ scare you to your core. It’s a flawless illustration of why pen and ink cartooning (and its modern computer-based companion) just can’t compete with the painstaking approach of this old school medium. Perhaps audiences will finally understand and appreciate what Selick and his cohorts have been championing for decades. This kind of animation is truly amazing, and Coraline is a perfect example of its remarkable, resplendent wonders.

by Bill Gibron

18 Jul 2009


How do you celebrate a seminal moment in cinema? How to do you mark the instant when the medium changed irrevocably, introducing new artistic rudiments into a mix that seemed mired in a morass of aesthetic sameness for decades? If you are Warner Brothers, you dig deep into your vault of available bonus material, contact director Zack Snyder, and give the boys in blu-ray a call. Like it or not (and there are many who will be displeased with this next statement), 300 stands as such a revelatory event in the motion picture artform. Outside of the parodies and rip-offs, this particularly powerful bottled lightning won’t be recaptured any time soon - isn’t that right, The Spirit? So the studio has decided to give the title an ultimate format refresher - and it is indeed as “complete” as one could wish for.

For those who’ve forgotten 300 centers around the Spartan King Leonidas. When Persian conquerors led by the self-proclaimed “man-god” Xerxes threaten to destroy all of Greece, the concerned royal seeks the sage advice of his Ephors - mystics who rely on the Oracle Pythia to predict the future. When they state unequivocally that Sparta must not go to war, Leonidas defies their legally binding mandate. Gathering 300 of his finest soldiers, he travels to the Hot Gates near the Persian encampment and prepares for battle. Meanwhile his Queen Gorgo pleads for the Council to reconsider and send more help for their leader. As a woman, she holds little sway, so she seeks the aid of influential advisor Theron. While he is plotting his own treachery, a hunchback named Ephialtes is desperate to join the armed uprising. When he is rejected, he finds comfort - and conspiracy - in the Persian camp.

While it easy to ridicule and dismiss 300 as some manner of homoerotic adolescent fantasy, just think of what it could have been. For those of us who are old enough to remember, your typical sword and sandal epic was nothing more than a lame excuse to get a recently dethroned Mr. Universe (or if unavailable, Mr. Olympia) to strut around shirtless while foreign speaking extras offered their poorly dubbed sentiments. The storyline, usually stolen from mythology, added to the air of phony flexed authenticity. Toss in a buxom beauty or two, a set left over from some other historical title, and bathe their entire thing in a cloud of musk machismo so overpowering it would make professional wrestling look like figure skating and you’ve got Peplum 101. In light of the source material, no matter Miller’s pedigree, 300 could have been one of these museum piece mockeries.

Instead, Zack Snyder’s meticulous recreation becomes a kind of entertainment and creative litmus test, a way of measuring why you go to the movies and how fascinating you find the process behind the lens. If you just want your action epic to move along at a quick ADD-like pace, pour on the sensational stuntwork, and accent with bloodshed and bountiful F/X, then 300 should satisfy. It’s ‘all that’ and a bag of delicious decadent CG chips. Yet for some reason, audiences initially rejected director Snyder’s visual overload. They’ll take it from a bunch of second-rate transforming robots, but when it’s offered up in oversized sugary vats of sensational cinematic eye candy, they apparently fall into a commercial coma. While it was a surprise hit in 2006, there are still those who argue over this film’s sense of indulgence. Among the many complaints leveled against the film, the dismissal of “more” seems particularly perturbing, given the brilliant outcome.

The other specious argument centers around the story. Granted, no one is claiming that 300 is a documentary and some poetic license has to be taken with events this far lost in the past. But what, exactly, is wrong with the way Miller and Snyder tell this tale? We get a wonderful flashback foundation, Leonidas’ early lessons by the fist and the lash provided in effective, emphatic displays. We have an emotional core, given the King’s love for his Queen, and there’s even some political intrigue. The battle lines and strategies are easy to follow and the motives of both sides are simple and self-evident. So what exactly is the problem here? Is it too upfront? Do post-modern audiences really want more from their pumped-out power statements than easy exposition and the occasional muscled torso?

Certainly the acting can’t be questioned - even if most of it is done from the neck down. Gerard Butler is almost unrecognizable as Leonidas and he is 300‘s heart and soul. His line readings remind the viewer of just what’s at stake and they give the occasionally outlandish situations a real sense of authority and seriousness. Similarly, Dominic West makes a terrific sleaze ball. His wormy personality, polished with a suave speaking style, makes it easy to understand Theron’s deception. With the added excellence of David Wenham (as narrator and battle participant Dilios) and Lena Headey as Gorgo, this movie has an amazing cast - and that’s not even discussing Rodrigo Santoro’s chilling turn as Xerxes, or the various well-chiseled members of the Spartan contingent. To its benefit, there is never a moment here when we feel that Gold’s Gym was raided for some random beefcake. These are Spartan’s, not centerfolds.

Of course, what 300 really boils down to is the overall effectiveness of the state of the art craftsmanship involved. Unlike Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, Snyder tries to keep things tied to truth, not tech spec computing power - and Warners responds with an amazing Blu-ray package. The 1080p image is outstanding, as good (or better) than its theatrical twin. Similarly, the sound design really shines on the new format, the speakers experiencing the same ambient atmosphere that audiences received the first time around. Some will question whether this digital double dip is worth it. From the audio and video department, the answer is a solid “yes”. But there is another facet to this release that really illustrates how the blu-ray format can be utilized to truly ‘enhance’ your viewing pleasure. It’s also the main reason to pick up this latest version. 

Thanks to the new “complete” dynamic, there are three equally intriguing ways to experience 300 all over again. The first finds Frank Miller and the art department discussing the various ways the story’s sequences were envisioned. Always a wealth of insight, the comic’s creator really enjoys sharing his stories of inspiration. Snyder then turns up for version number two, this time explaining the whole “greenscreen” approach to the production and the various tricks used to realize his take on Miller’s vision. Finally, a few scholars settle in to explain the historical accuracy (or in many cases, the lack thereof) of this particular version of the famed battle. As with most movies, there is some obvious fabrication going on. But for the most part, Miller and Snyder stay true to the Spartans’ stand-off against the invading hordes.

As a technical achievement both in theaters and on the new digital domain, 300 is a true artistic triumph. It stands alone among its many motion picture peers, offering an experience as close to ancient canvases come to life as you are likely to see in the cinema - at least, for the next few years. As directors like Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller himself attempt to push the boundaries of such ‘sketch and illustrate’ epics, there will always be this groundbreaking trendsetter to remind everyone of how to do it right. While one can debate the merits of his movie all they want, no one can question the artistry required to bring it to life. Thankfully, this new “Complete Experience” will highlight how hard - and rewarding - such incessantly hard work really is.

by Bill Gibron

12 Jul 2009


Amazing feats of human athleticism, no matter the category, always seem to inspire. Whether it’s a time-tested pro making one last attempt at twilight career redemption, or a spunky band of newcomers lighting up the sport with their brash untainted verve, we just can’t seem to get enough. Every time we think Hollywood has tapped out the genre, giving us the random clichéd tales of underprivileged swimmers, culturally ill-equipped bobsledders, or any number of misfit teams, they find a new source of sentimentality, and we sit back and swallow every “will they or won’t they” drop. As a self-proclaimed entry in the long running “True-Life Documentary” series, Roy Disney has decided to live out his aging sailor’s dreams by finding a crew of privileged college kids to man his high tech boat, the Morning Light, in the annual Transpac yacht race. Sadly, what should have been compelling competitive theater comes up a little short.

After a sneak peek at an audition process that seems more like American Idol (or better yet, MTV’s Real World) than the tryouts for a 10 to 12 day endurance test, a ragtag group of clean cut kids travel to Hawaii to prepare for the big day. In a move that is, again, taken straight out of a reality series script, the 15 advancing candidates will have to choose the 11 who will actually make the cut. That’s right, over the course of 30 minutes we get superficial sketches of everyone involved (the Harvard queen with boating in her blood, the arrogant Aussie who’s a master at manning the helm) and then wait for the moment when four of them get the boot. There are a couple of surprises along the way, including one stand-out participant who’s either a very lucky kid or a token representation of diversity. When the crew is finally selected, its overall make-up sure does resemble the House of Mouse…circa 1964.

With its technical jargon, indecipherable maneuvers, and overall level of procedural mystery, boating is a tough cinematic sell. We never really understand how this well trained crew actually works together, constantly question the calls for “trim” and “jibe”, and see a plaintive pattern of steering and struggling. None of this makes for compelling fiction or understandable intrigue. Morning Light hopes to combat this lack of procedural acumen by offering up the thoughts of our well-groomed crew. Sadly, they are as dense as the directives needed to get from California to Hawaii. It’s not that they are unlikeable or aggravating, but these are young people ill-prepared to have their every action captured on camera. When push comes to shove, they put on their well-to-do Ivy League airs and respond politely to the lens.

Besides, it’s not like Morning Light loaded the cast with unique and/or dashing personalities. Genny Tulloch, the only girl chosen for the journey, breaks her arm during a freak snowboarding accident. Of course, she turns the stupid move on her part into a minor pity party, especially when she doesn’t earn the longed-for Captain’s chair. Mark Towill turns his Downunder accent into a bit of personal subterfuge, inspiring confidence while occasionally slipping into dictator mode. One particular sailor is dubbed “the silent, dependable type” and he upholds that derivative description rather well. In fact, the rest of the party is so generic that the film has to constantly put their names onscreen to remind the audience as to who they actually are.

Indeed, the most compelling person here is young African American candidate Steve Manson. Uncomfortable in the water and carrying the burden of his mother’s recent death on his scrawny city boy shoulders, this Baltimore son seems destined to be the film’s mandatory feel good story. This is especially true when he fails one of the first tests and is still brought on to the Hawaii part of the program. But like most of this underwhelming movie, what could have been a knockout story of courage under fire and rising to the occasion turns into a tepid slice of upper crust calculation. Even the music tries to mimic the tried and true Disney formula. Instead of compelling classical or ambient soundscapes, the score is littered with the kind of Jonas/Miley wannabes that already give the company a crass corporate rock label.

And the sad thing is, the backdrop is beyond gorgeous. Hawaii is filmed in true travelogue style, and every training exercise becomes a voyage into nature’s spellbinding liquid heart. During the race, we see amazing sunsets and awe-inspiring cloudbursts. The white foam of the every wave glistens in the ever-present rays of a gorgeous sun, and when wildlife comes along to accompany the crew, we see every dolphin diving moment. But there are times when Morning Light becomes just another episode of Big Boats on ESPN2. The night vision footage is uninspiring, and we don’t get enough “action” sequences, moments when man and machine merge together to form a perfect union of power and perfection. Instead, we get lots of voiceover sentiments and more shots of people in expensive sunglasses.

It would be nice to report that this labor of love for Roy and his yachting compatriots reminds one of the glory days of Disney, a time when such seminal (if often staged) True-Life adventures like The Painted Desert and The Vanishing Prairie earned critical raves and Oscar gold. It would be equally polite to say what a compelling and ultimately uplifting experience it all is. Indeed, buried somewhere between all the good will and best intentions lies this land lubber of a production. It takes a lot to make a two week, 2200 mile-plus journey across the open sea seem like a boring trip to Cancun during Spring Break, but somehow, Morning Light manages said entertainment strategy quite well. In fact, this may be one of those achievements in human endurance that doesn’t elicit cheers, but sneers. It’s just too picture perfected to be powerful.

by Bill Gibron

11 Jul 2009


What does it say about today’s modern woman that fashion has taken the place of feminism. Is the battle for equality and professional recognition really over when the more mature members of the gender flaunt their fading sexuality and call themselves “cougars”? Or what about the younger generation who views a sex tape as success or materialism as a Master’s Degree. Where did it all go wrong? When did Gloria Steinam turn into Carrie Bradshaw? These questions and many, many more instantly come to mind the minute you settle into Touchstone/Disney’s ditzy RomCom Confessions of a Shopaholic. Unfortunately, this feather light comedy fails to provide a single insight.

Based on Sophie Kinsella’s popular series, this particular story centers on Rebecca Bloomwood, a spoiled suburban drama queen who longs for the days when she can tear up the typeface as a member of Alette, the world’s biggest fashion rag. Named after its renowned owner, the magazine is the answer to all of Rebecca’s dreams - and the solution to a few nightmares as well. Deep in debt and continually piling up the financial obligations, she just can’t stop shopping. She shops instead of paying her rent. She stops instead of buying food. She shops instead of sleeping. Of course, with such an addiction comes a few minor annoyances - like a collection agent named Derek Smeath who has a tendency to stalk her like a lovelorn ex-boyfriend.

Naturally, Rebecca loses her job, and seeing it as her opportunity to win over potential employer Alette Naylor, she puts her best foot forward for the interview. Instead, she is rejected, and must settle for a gig working for humble British hunk Luke Brandon and his financial report Successful Saving. Rebecca seems lost at first, unable to grasp the complicated elements and intricate theories involved. But with her personal penury looming large, she applies her theories of shopping to the situation and - BINGO! - she’s a big fat industry smash. With Smeath hot on her name brand high heels, however, and Luke showing more than a passing interest, it’s going to take a miracle to get Rebecca’s life straightened out.

There’s a fine line between likeable and lightweight, a blurry border that Confessions of a Shopaholic crosses early and often. Unfortunately released near the apex of America’s current economic meltdown, the tale of a shallow city slicked stick figure who can’t understand the concept of fiscal moderation became more mean spirited then high spirited. Watching a person - fictional or not - fret over not having a $500 pair of shoes seemed self-consciously self-indulgent on the part of producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director PJ Hogan. While amiable actress Isla Fisher finds numerous ways to keep us forgiving and engaged, the cruel consumerist context drives a nail directly into our far more fidgety common sense.

Without a keen eye behind the lens, this would be unbearable. It would reek of the kind of wanton wish fulfillment that gets little girls to dream of white knights in shining armor instead of long nights studying for exams. This is the kind of flawed fairy tale that, through no real fault of its own, ushers in a misplaced mindset that sees success measured in dollar signs and designer outfits, not personal growth and individual actualization. Thanks to Hogan, whose resume includes the equally adept Muriel’s Wedding and a magical adaptation of Peter Pan, a pink candy patina is draped over this otherwise ill-conceived message. Without him in the director’s chair, we’d be mired in unbearable pro-Prada announcements.

And Fisher is fine as well, working both the physical and personality aspect of Rebecca in an energetic, endearing manner. Sure, the slapstick doesn’t succeed at all, but that’s not her fault. Few filmmakers working within the last 50 years understand the basics of a perfect pratfall. There are also Ms. Kinsella’s claims to consider. By moving the story to America (the original story is set in London) and amplifying the whimsy, what might have worked across the pond comes across as tired and trying as a third rate sitcom. Even the excellent supporting work of seasoned veterans like John Goodman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Hugh Dancy, John Lithgow, and Joan Cusak can’t completely salvage this silliness.

Yet for some odd reason, Confessions of a Shopaholic still manages to endear…kind of, sort of. The script does find an interesting way of explaining Rebecca’s obsession - that is when it’s not giving the character a series of whiny tantrums to trip over - and we grow to care for this otherwise one-dimensional gal. Since her struggles with money and mounting bills hit so close to home, there’s an inherent compassion for her clearly self-made traumas and since she’s true to herself (no matter how flawed that conceit really is) we rally around her desire to change. In fact, the best thing about this movie is that Rebecca never really relishes her obvious problem. The joy is momentary, as fleeting as the balance in her bank account.

Still, there is something intrinsically wrong about a narrative that tells its audience to value things over thoughts. Rebeeca eventually wins, not because she is smarter or more sensible than those around her. No, as in any good fable, she finds a man to defend her honor while lucking into a solution that more or less solves her problems. It’s a mangled message for sure, an adolescent’s daydream retrofitted for a time when such skylarking should be cast aside. As a mainstream entertainment trying to do little more than entertain and please, Confessions of a Shopaholic is fine. It proves that Isla Fisher and PJ Hogan can elevate even the lamest source material. But if you come here looking for something deeper, you’ll de disappointed. The only real point is one of “more”, not meaning.

by Bill Gibron

11 Jul 2009


No other deceased superstar has as sketchy a legacy as kung fu king Bruce Lee. Part of it comes from the fact that he was a charismatic Asian actor in an industry where such performers were consistently reduced to playing ridiculous, repugnant stereotypes. The other aspect comes from his decision to travel abroad to expand his career horizons. Unlike the West, which views film as a combination commercial and artistic medium, the East sees cinema somewhat differently. There, it’s disposable and direct, providing an entertainment service and then fading away to make room for the next interchangeable offering. Even though films like Fists of Fury, The Chinese Connection, and Enter the Dragon managed to crossover, his untimely death at age 33 locked his celebrity into a single unswerving ideal.

Perhaps this is why most fans have long since forgotten his posthumous labor of love entitled The Silent Flute. Originally conceived with pal James Coburn as a cool co-starring vehicle, and polished with the help of Oscar winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, it had everything that was dear to Lee’s heart. Renamed Circle of Iron and released five yeas after his passing, this exploration of Zen and the art of bountiful butt kicking is by far the most personal movie the man never made. Hoping to include as much of his own spiritual philosophy as possible while simultaneously showing off the various unique forms of martial artistry, this almost epic would have – along with Game of Death – propelled the actor deep into legitimacy’s limelight. Instead, it’s now an anomaly, a project of near mythic proportions eventually half realized by friends, well wishers and determined disciples.

In this simple quest narrative, a rebellious fighter named Cord (an off kilter Jeff Cooper) heads out to seek the Book of All Knowledge. It’s supposedly held by a great sorcerer/villain named Zetan (Christopher Lee in an extended cameo). Along the way, he must face several trials, each one determining his worthiness to reach his destination. In addition, he constantly runs into a blind master (a cool, collected David Carradine) who hopes to teach him humility and focus. After battling a deranged monkey man, a panther-like shadow of Death, and a nasty nomadic flesh merchant, Cord finally reaches the final stage of his journey. But there is not another fistfight in the offing. Instead, the stubborn warrior must learn that there is more to life than aggression, and that the answers to the great mysteries of the universe lie not with a single volume, but in another ‘vessel’ all together.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see why devotees both past and present have shunned this otherwise excellent veiled vanity project. Containing more mysticism than martial arts, and an incredibly awkward turn by Cooper (Lee originally pegged Coburn for the lead), what could have been unique and quite unparalleled in the burgeoning world of international action filmmaking ends up an endearing but often incomplete voyage. Part of the problem lies directly in the casting. While exceedingly buff and talented in the ways of personal fighting, Cooper’s Cord is too contemporary in his mannerisms. He just can’t play period. He speaks like a guy down the street, not a meditative wanderer looking to purify his soul. Even in moments where he’s not required to deliver dialogue, there is just something about his actor that screams mid 1970s.

Luckily, the late, great Carradine is much, much better. While still slightly too modern for his characters (he plays several roles here, including the blind sage and all the bad guys), he projects a kind of inner consciousness that flows directly into what Lee was after. Indeed, as a substitute for the late artist – Bruce created this collection of roles as his own personalized tour de force – the Kung Fu star is stellar. Even the supporting roles are better than our ab-addled lead. Eli Wallach is intriguing as a doctor trying to temper his own biological urges by dissolving the lower half of his body in oil, and Roddy McDowall is nicely disconnected as the organizer of the competition which starts the film. As for Christopher Lee, his is a very minor turn as the notorious Zetan. But one shouldn’t expect a Count Dooku preview here. In keeping with Lee’s original idea, nothing happens the way it’s supposed to in this obviously allegorical world.

Apparently, it was an approach that many in the cast and crew found confusing. As part of a new stunning Blu-ray release from Blue Underground, Circle of Iron gets a collection of telling supplemental material that try to explain this ersatz epic. Director Richard Moore is on hand, and he’s helped by company commentator David Gregory. Together they explore the film’s rocky origins and offer up speculation on where, in Lee’s overall canon, this movie would rate. Star David Carradine also adds his introspective two cents worth, and he’s not ashamed of labeling Lee an arrogant, self-important man. Producer Paul Maslansky complains about the difficulty in finding financing for a marital arts movie in the Me Decade, and fight coordinator Joe Lewis admits that, because of a certain actor’s inexperience with fake fighting (cough – Carradine – cough), the film’s tête-à-tête’s are not quite up to snuff.

All agree on one thing, however – Lee was obsessed with this project – and if you can remove yourself from all the mindblowing Matrix-like fisticuffs of recent years, you will recognize the passion at the center of this story. Lee was devoted to the karmic elements of his craft, the yin and yang of being a man of peace who made his living pretending to abuse and even kill people. He wanted to prove that age old adage that the reason you learn a technique like karate is to be taught how and when NOT to use it. The simplistic philosophizing peppered throughout the film (“two bird tied together may have four wings, but still cannot fly”) is meant as baby steps to understanding the basics of the Zen conceit. By downplaying the physical and emphasizing the cerebral (or in some cases, the spiritual) Lee was looking to take the genre to another level. For that alone, the film is very important.

However, Circle of Iron will definitely rise or fall based on the expectations you bring to it. If you’re expecting a rollicking nonstop spectacle of flying fists, roundhouse kicks, and expertly wielded weaponry, you’ll be disappointed, and maybe even a little disgusted. This is not Hero, or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Instead, it’s more like a loincloth version of Five Easy Pieces with throwing stars. We are supposed to respond to both the introspection and the arm breaking, the parable-like approach to life and its lessons, and the ludicrous love scene between Cooper and newcomer Erica Creer. When cobbled together like this, it can seem quite silly. But when given the added perspective of Bruce Lee and his devotion to the project, obvious flaws become almost invisible.

Granted, in an ADD hampered cinematic society which thinks films like Crank and The Transporter are too restrained, The Silent Flute/Circle of Iron will appear almost comatose. But if you get into the mellow mood being presented, and actually listen to the many maxims offered up, you will definitely be engaged both visually and metaphysically. While Bruce Lee continues to be batted back and forth, marginalized and sanctified by critics on both sides of the conversations, it’s clear that his impact on martial arts in the movies remains as strong as ever. No film featuring kung fu, karate, or any other form of Eastern training can make it into theaters without bowing to the man who more or less formed their commercial viability. While Circle of Iron won’t diminish his earnest reputation, it also won’t amplify it. Instead, it remains an individualized endeavor lacking its true inspiration.

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